Between the Sheets

Why you should resist the lure of book clubs
Reading is arguably the second-most intimate human activity, and, as with the first-most intimate human activity, there are people who will try to convince you that it’s better done in groups. These groups are called book clubs. I am in one. Maybe you are, too. If so, here’s why we’ve both made a terrible mistake.

In theory, there’s much to recommend book clubs. They encourage reading. They enrich authors who, as you may have heard, are not particularly in the business of being enriched these days. They spur socializing, usually face to face, another valuable and endangered activity. Public book clubs — most notably Oprah’s, or CBC’s Canada Reads — have become an essential economic engine for the publishing industry. And the book club remains appealing to anyone who, like me, romanticizes long arguments over sonnets in smoky coffee houses, or who occasionally longs for the womb of the lecture hall — where, as eager students, we were convinced that each new unread novel held the power to shape our lives.

So it’s not surprising that our collective interest in book clubs is growing, even as our interest in reading shrinks. This year, the Globe and Mail — which, like many major newspapers, reduced its coverage of actual books — launched a semi-regular column on book clubs titled, depressingly, Clubland. (The word “clubland,” of course, is usually associated with dance clubs, and seems here like a ham-fisted way to make book clubs sound sexy and fun — you know, like dancing! — in much the same ham-fisted way book clubs are designed to make reading seem sexy and fun.)

As I mentioned, I am in a book club. It has four other members, all of whom I respect, and who represent a spectrum of literary tastes. Our selections have ranged from Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser to Martin Amis’s Money to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And, like every book club, we do our book club thing. We shuffle our schedules. We gather. We drink wine. We eat cheese. And we talk about the chosen book for a few obligatory minutes before we move on to the part of the club I think most of us really look forward to, which is not talking about the book.

literary fraternity
from the Globe and Mail’s Clubland column

To keep the focus where it belongs, members of the Wheat Sheaf Literary Society waste no time fretting over who will host the next meeting, what to wear or the type of food and drink to serve.

These are men, after all; serious men who must surely have more important things on their minds than such trifling details. Or maybe, being men, they just couldn’t be bothered.

Whatever it is, their stripped-down strategy has served them well through the half-dozen years they have been convening to talk fiction (the written-down kind) at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, Toronto’s oldest pub. The Sheaf, which turns 160 this year, was off-limits to women until 1969 but continues to lure a mostly male clientele with the glow of its big-screen TVs, the clack of billiard balls and an ever-bubbling deep fryer.
You might contend that your club is different; that it has unsealed your eyes to new and exotic authors; and that you have great Riesling-fuelled, soul-enriching debates that linger long into the night. That may be so. I don’t doubt or begrudge you. But I would suggest that this fascination with book clubs — forming them, joining them, chronicling them — is both antithetical to the enjoyment of reading, and perfectly in keeping with our modern conviction that nothing is worth doing that isn’t immediately shared.

Maybe it’s posting photos of the family vacation on Facebook, or tweeting the details of your morning latte, or uploading your wedding boogie to YouTube. Now, I love a good wedding boogie. But to suggest that the experience of reading The House of Mirth (a recent well-received selection by my own book club) is intrinsically enhanced by subsequently talking about reading The House of Mirth is to imply that reading The House of Mirth is an experience that can be, and needs to be, enhanced. And I think most anyone who’s ever read a book and loved it understands that’s simply not true. If you read Moby Dick while sailing the world alone, you would not enjoy it less. In fact, I think you’d enjoy it more.

Which brings us back to the intimacy of reading. Consider something even as silly and modest as this article: I’m in your head right now. You have graciously allowed me to slip inside the private sphere of your consciousness, if only for a few minutes. (It’s like a twist on that hoary babysitter horror movie: The voice is coming from inside your head! ) This is very different from how we experience any other kind of art: no matter how much you enjoy a painting or revel in a symphony, there’s not a sense that the painter has hijacked your eyes or the composer has hijacked your ears. The writer, though, hijacks your thoughts. (Hello! Hello! — I’m making you say that right now.) Have you ever found that after reading a writer with a particularly musical cadence your own thoughts echo those rhythms for days? The experience of reading so closely mimics the process of consciousness that it attains a unique level of artistic intimacy. Great art permeates the barrier of consciousness; reading obliterates it. It literally happens inside you. How’s that for intimate?
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9 comment(s)

Julia ChanterOctober 14, 2009 11:47 EST

So if reading — in this sense of pleasurable invasion — is a sexual experience, shouldn't we talk about it to make it a better experience? Doesn't it expand our minds and allow us to discover new ways of doing it? New ways of thinking about it?

hjliOctober 14, 2009 13:26 EST

A fantastic piece! Made me laugh to myself a number of times.

Julia Chanter is probably right — that talking openly about reading/sex generates wisdom and innovation — but Sternbergh's comparison of book club to locker room... Loved it!

Jonathan MendelsohnOctober 16, 2009 08:37 EST

Hmmm. Great article; I just don't know if I agree.

Like the article's author, I don't feel the need to rush out and sip wine and discuss, say, Haruki Murakami's latest novel after reading it. But that doesn't mean I don't feel a great desire to share, which, I imagine, is at least one large part of what book clubs are about.

It's just that I, like not a few other fountain pen loving types, I'm sure, share in a different way.

Because if I ever do sail the world, alone, and read "Moby Dick," alone, like with anything great I've read, or awesome I've seen, much like a Walrus cultural journalist, you can bet that within hours of that last page read I'll be online blogging about it. Wanting to share it with the world - in my way.

It just so happens that my way of sharing, much I imagine, like Mr. Sternbergh's, happens on paper (read: computer screens), rather than in other people's living rooms.

In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should admit that I don't do that kind of bloggy sharing with my other most intimate activity.

Actually, that's not completely true. In some abstracted and twisted form, a bunch of that probably winds up in my fiction writing.


AhniwaOctober 19, 2009 07:36 EST

First, I'll admit that I was a lit major. Then I'll say that having attended an undergraduate institution that focused very heavily on seminar (e.g. we read a book, generally a novel, every week and discussed it, sometimes through two, two-hour sessions) I really appreciate the value that discussing literature can have on creating a more complete understanding of a given work. Granted, this was a lot of great, complex literature, with numerous themes, tones, and historical implications to discuss - all the same my pleasure and understanding of works like Camus' The Plague and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground were greatly increased through discussion.

Now, all of that said, I am in a book group now, and the best part is, as you say, not usually in talking about the book. For me, perhaps the largest benefit of being in a book club is that I read books I would not otherwise have selected. Book clubs can force us to flex our reading muscles, try new genres, and perhaps find an author, style, or historical period that we truly love to read.

And that, I think, is of immense value.

readerOctober 20, 2009 07:49 EST

I always hated discussing books I read. I would often get lower grades in lit courses (run as described by Ahniwa) because I refused to join in the discussion. That is probably why I chose history instead of literature for a major. I was sometimes interested to hear what others had thought or taken away from a work, but the idea of sharing my own thoughts made little sense to me. Just as discussing the exact shape of my genitalia would have been uncomfortable and perhaps inappropriate.

I do not belong to a book club, but I do appreciate the notion that a club will hold you to reading something you otherwise would not have picked up, or would have put down far before the climax. Perhaps the wine should just be the lure to finish the book. Show up, prove you read it and get on with NOT discussing it.

AnonymousOctober 26, 2009 21:51 EST

Sharing your perspectives with a book IS very much like sex. You bring your personal experiences into play. If you have only humped the likes of Dickens, your approach will be very different than if your lay of choice is Vice Magazine. What you read, much like who you bang, forms the foundation for your views on literature and sex, respectively.

However, Sternbergh implies that if we all share our sordid literary experiences, we all end up with gonorrhea. I think that the best thing to do is practice safe-bookclubbing. Discuss the general ideas of the book, the way the plot developed and what issues can be drawn but keep the details of your kink to yourself. Then when you turn the lights low and skip the rubber with a new book, you can really relish in the skin-to-skin action. But it is always nice to know the friends in your book club will support you after a really bad shag.

Apple pieJanuary 20, 2010 16:18 EST

Good,but i feel asleep 20times while i was reading it.

Pumpkin pieJanuary 20, 2010 16:20 EST

I think Apple Pie needs to see a doctor. He/she probably has narcolepsy.

Emilio Reyes Le BlancAugust 19, 2010 17:01 EST

Why ought I resist the lure of book clubs? I was hoping that Adam Sternbergh would tell me, because I have long been on the hunt for a knockdown argument to justify my own repulsion at the literary equivalent of a seance circle. But I was duped; the gun was loaded with blanks. No man worth his intellectual weight in rock salt would defend his distaste at the idea of joining a book club by citing the novice arguments employed in his essay.

Argument one. Our experience of reading a book ought to be enhanced by a book club, or else we ought to resist joining one. But the experience cannot be enhanced. Corroborating evidence? 'If you read Moby Dick while sailing the world alone, you would not enjoy it less. In fact, I think you'd enjoy it more.' Therefore, we ought not join book clubs.

The argument fails not because it relies on a hilariously dull imaginary scenario, but because it presumes precisely what it is trying to establish — viz., that the experience of a book is not heightened by being in a book club.

Argument two. Reading is a process which occurs exclusively in the privacy of one's consciousness. And talking about reading is not a process which occurs there. Since no process distinct from the process which occurs inside oneself while one reads could ever enhance the experience of reading, discussing a text in public 'can't help but undermine and cheapen the very experience' undergone in the private act of reading. Therefore, discussing a book in a club cannot enhance your experience of reading it, and, presuming that is what you hope to get out of a book club, you ought not join one.

We can all agree that talking about reading exercises different cognitive faculties from the act itself, just as we can agree that listening to a symphony is a different process than studying the symphony. But why accept the implicit premise that there is an impermeable barrier between the private and public world — that a conservatory lecture on classical counterpoint could not attune us to the unusual and breathtaking way we hear the oboe and bassoon move in octaves toward an imperfect cadence in the laboratory of our mind? What we learn in discussing the arts is certainly a distinct process that occurs from when we are enjoying them, but there is little in that fact itself to recommend the thesis that what we gain through discussion cannot heighten our enjoyment.

Instead of getting an argument in this essay, your readers get little more than the barren fact that Mr. Sternbergh believes he ought not be in a book club because he doesn't get very much out of book clubs. As such, his essay advances little more to the debate than the freshman complaint that studying Shakespeare ruins reading Shakespeare. And if things were really that simple, English departments would be filled with tumbleweeds, not professors.

Emilio Reyes Le Blanc

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